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You Are Free: A Lesson from the Greco-Roman World

Most of us know that the world of the earliest Christians included slavery. The book of Philemon details the return of the slave Onesimus. And elsewhere, Paul flips the usual household codes, addresses slaves directly (scandalous!), and tells masters they, too, have a master. But even more personally, Paul refers to all believers as manumitted from sin and free to serve our new master: righteousness. Here are three examples from Paul’s letters. Notice what he says about who owns the believer.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness.

So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:16-23).

For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20).

You were bought with a price. Do not become slaves of men (1 Cor. 7:23).

Interestingly, inscriptions in Delphi, Greece, have some scholars seeing a cultural context for Paul’s view of believers as slaves of Christ, slaves to God and righteousness:

In Delphi, people erected temples to multiple gods including Artemis, but the main deity there was her kid brother, Apollo. And inscriptions record acts of what scholars refer to as “sacred manumission.” Different kinds of sacred manumission existed, but one is of particular interest to students of the New Testament: the sacred fictive sale. Stay with me here. It’s good stuff. As scholar Deborah Kamen notes, in Delphi archaeologists have found records of the manumission of more than 1,350 slaves dating between 201 BC and AD 100 CE[1]. Note that this period includes the time of Paul.

An example of “fictive sacral manumission” was found at the temple complex of Apollo. It begins by stating the date, which is typical of such inscriptions. (In those days, they identified dates by who was leading—the equivalent to an American saying “in the third year of President Biden.”) What follows is a pronouncement: a male slave named Maiphatas from Galatia (Anatolia/modern Turkey) and a female slave named Ammia of Illyrian origin (Western Balkan Peninsula) are “manumitted for the price of seven minas of silver.” And they are sold with one major stipulation. To gain their freedom they have to remain with their owner until he dies. If they leave, the agreement says, all will be void. But if they stay, when their master—one Critodamus—dies, “the sale shall remain with the god on condition that they are free and not to be claimed as slaves by anyone for their whole life, doing whatever they wish and going wherever they wish.”[2] That is, when their master dies, they will belong to Apollo. And since Apollo will never claim them nor can anyone buy them from Apollo (how would they even do that?), they are free.  

Kamen explains, “In this mode of manumission, masters freed their slaves by ‘selling’ them to a god… for a specified price…. These slaves then became the nominal property of the god, with the understanding that [the god] would make no use of his right of ownership.”[3] Consequently, that right “was transferred, by default, to the slaves themselves, who were then in possession of themselves—that is, free.”[4]

Scholars see in this ancient practice Paul’s perspective on the believer as manumitted to Christ. Those formerly enslaved to sin were bought with the price of Christ’s blood. They were set free. And their freedom allowed them to choose righteousness.

Do you belong to Christ? If so, you have a master in heaven who has set you free. You no longer have to choose sin. It has no mastery over you. You are free in Christ through sacred manumission. You belong to God and you never have to live under slavery again.

[1] Kamen, Deborah. “Sale for the Purpose of Freedom: Slave-Prostitutes and Manumission in Ancient Greece.”  The Classical Journal, Vol. 109, No. 3 (February-March 2014), pp. 281-307

https://doi.org/10.5184/classicalj.109.3.0281 p. 285.

[2] SGDI 2.1854; translation by Austin, Hellenistic World, 272.

[3] Karem, Sale, 285.

[4] Karem, Sale, 286.

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

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